I knew my garden was in trouble when my pea plants went on strike. After sprouting, they remained low to the ground and seemed in no hurry to grow upward.
It had been a wet spring. The weather gods had decided to give the Northeast all of the Northwest’s rain, leaving New England submerged while Washington state suffered a drought. But I thought peas would do well in the wet spring, since they are a cool-weather crop.
One morning, I awoke around dawn and decided to do some early gardening. I soon discovered the reason why my peas were stunted. An army of slugs blanketed the wet ground, chowing down on everything in their path. I looked around at the rows of veggies I thought were slow in coming up and realized that they had already come and gone.
Many gardeners have experienced similar sinking feelings with their patches. Maybe you’ve woken to find a herd of deer munching your beans to the ground. Maybe you’ve discovered your dog’s been digging up a new row of your garden every night. Or maybe you’ve finally realized those red and black bugs on your potato plants aren’t really ladybugs.
It would be tempting to throw in the trowel, but that would be a waste of a good gardening season. You have all winter to curse your fate, but for now you need to get busy.
While the ground is clear of frost, there’s hope. You can still grow a bountiful crop if you’re willing to fill holes with whatever works. Throw out that carefully drawn diagram of your garden; it’s time to improvise.
Stop the bleeding
First, take a good look around the garden and see if you can improve the chances of survival for replacement fall garden vegetables. Nothing’s more frustrating than seeing the next round of seeds meet the same fate as the first.
If the problem is critters, like rabbits or deer, erect a fence or find some other way to eliminate the welcome mat. If your problem is slugs or bugs, you can opt for a natural pesticides (beer traps work wonders with slugs!) or consider manually evicting them. (Be sure to wear gloves, as it can be sticky work.)
No matter what the problem, consider spending more time in the garden every day. Often, as in my case, garden problems get out of hand because of gardener inattention. You shouldn’t blame yourself for bad weather, but the only way to help your garden is to notice that it needs help.
Dispel false hope
Next, you need to let go of all illusions. Consult your seed packets and check germination rates for rows of crops that aren’t showing signs of life. If things don’t come up soon after the packet says they should, they never will.
Likewise, beware of falling too much under the spell of the underdog seedling. I spent two months watching miniscule squash plants for signs of life. Only when they turned yellow was I ready to admit that the row needed replanting. You don’t have to pull out underachievers if you have a soft heart, but you should plant around them, just in case things don’t work out.
Replicate what works
If you’ve caught your failures early in the season, take another look around the garden and see what’s growing well. It’s often easy to overlook your successes while wallowing in your failures.
Crop diversity sounds like a good idea at the start of the season, but if potatoes and carrots are growing like gangbusters in your garden, plant more potatoes and carrots. Just make sure there’s enough of the season left to replicate success.
Your garden is trying to tell you something about the soil. Maybe the pH is tilted in such a way that certain crops can’t thrive. That’s something to worry about in the off-season. Don’t start messing with the pH now, just roll with what works.
If you’re still determined to plant long-season crops, ask around for healthy seedlings. If your friend’s cucumbers have done so well that she doesn’t need her extra seedlings, swallow your pride and ask for the cast-offs. Farmers’ markets also will have seedlings for sale.
Just beware of buying seedlings that are too long in the tooth. A farmer near where I live keeps annual “seedlings” for sale all summer long in hopes of snaring a sucker.
Forget flair, plant beans
We all want to plant one-of-a-kind heirlooms that will win at the county fair, but don’t put the blue-ribbon burden on your midseason replacements.
If your garden is having trouble, plant the stuff that would come up in the middle of the sidewalk.
Go for nitrogen-fixing plants that thrive in poor soil, like peas, beans and nasturtiums (good in salads). Beans also make a good choice if you have a slug problem, since they spring out of the ground and grow tall quickly, making them tougher targets for the slime balls.
Also, look on the back of seed packets for cold-tolerant crops that grow quickly. Some crops like broccoli, beets and carrots resist frost well, especially if banked. Still, think about planting crops that mature in 50 days or less.
Keep things moist
Just because a deluge did in your last batch of seedlings, don’t forget to regularly water the new fall garden vegetable seeds. Seeds need moisture to germinate, and they can dry out easily in the summer.
Don’t ever give up!
Don’t stop planting cold-season crops until September. As the season gets late, stick to greens that you can pick before maturity or bank to weather out the cold.
Next year, plan for failure
My favorite scene in the movie “Gettysburg” is when Gen. Joshua Chamberlin (played by Jeff Daniels) tries to offer guns to reluctant new recruits right before a battle, only to learn there are none to be had.
Chamberlin then says to the recruits, “Wait here a bit. There’ll be guns available in a little while.” What he was saying, tactfully, was that people would die in the battle, and then the recruits could have the guns of the dead.
Remember this scene when you start seedlings next year.
Your garden will sustain some losses, so you might as well start extra seedlings to fill the gaps for next year.
Your garden may look unruly if you plant midseason replacements, but it’ll be worth it when you’re picking beans in September from rows that seemed barren in May.
Freelance writer Craig Idlebrook had to abandon some wonderful tomatoes when he moved to Medford, Massachusetts. A regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, he can be reached at email@example.com.
Meet the Midseason Replacements
When things go wrong, don't give up. There are indeed some garden vegetables out there that can tolerate late plantings, even up to August. The important thing to keep in mind is both frost dates in your area and days to maturity for the individual species. The following was adapted from the University of Minnesota Extension.
• Bush beans
• Brussels sprouts
• Collard Greens
• Green onion
• Leaf lettuce
• Mustard Greens
• Swiss chard